Senator Amy Klobuchar won the last debate of 2019. What does that mean for 2020?

Sure, lots of mainstream media called it for former vice president Joe Biden, who definitely had his best night. But that’s different from winning. You learn early in pundit school (it’s nonexistent, but you watch and “learn”) that if a front-runner doesn’t lose a debate, they win. So a lot of pundits said Biden won.

But in a chaotic time like this, that’s just dumb. Biden had some good moments and no bad ones—unlike other Biden debates—but Klobuchar dominated at times when other candidates seemed about to come out on top. And that’s what makes a debate winner.

The Minnesota senator broke through by decrying the tenacious and almost tedious onstage infighting going on among her rivals. I thought Senator Elizabeth Warren was about to knock out Mayor Pete Buttigieg, attacking him for charging thousands for selfies (when she does them for free) and holding fundraisers with the wealthiest—including one in a wine cave that fascinated Political Twitter.

“We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.” Warren turned Buttigieg into Wine Cave Pete.

But it was Klobuchar who made the most of it. “I did not come here to listen to this argument. I came here to make a case for progress,” she said to cheers. “And I have never even been to a wine cave. I’ve been to the wind cave in South Dakota, which I suggest you go to.”

Klobuchar effectively stole her approach from her recently departed 2020 rival, Senator Kamala Harris, who broke through in the first debate by saying, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” What the Minnesota senator didn’t do was follow it up by attacking Biden, as Harris did to temporary acclaim, but long-term pain. (Harris’s Biden hit, fair as it was, turned a substratum of Democratic Party people against her.)

Instead, Klobuchar took it to her younger Midwestern rival Buttigieg, but she did it on behalf of all of her colleagues on the debate stage. It’s an interesting model for how a woman can get ahead. Here’s how it went, from the Washington Post transcript:

When we were in the last debate, Mayor, you basically mocked the hundred years of experience on the stage. And what do I see on this stage? I see Elizabeth’s work starting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and helping 29 million people.
I see the vice president’s work in getting $2 billion for his cancer moon shot. I see Senator Sanders’ work—working to get the veterans bill passed across the aisle. And I see what I’ve done, which is to negotiate three farm bills and be someone that actually had major provisions put in those bills…I just think you should respect our experience when you look at how you evaluate someone who can get things done.

Buttigieg shot back, but he never recovered.

I know Klobuchar won the debate, partly because CNN immediately gave her almost 20 minutes after it ended. No other apparent debate winner has gotten that kind of platform, in my memory. It’s possible Biden turned the slot down; he does that often, to his peril. Still, I think Klobuchar’s post-debate acclaim shows there’s a major mainstream opening for a centrist who isn’t Biden. Her broad welcome is also a sign that Buttigieg is damaged goods.

He was before the debate, but Klobuchar and Warren tag-teamed him in a way that seemed to get through to viewers and pundits. In her star turn on CNN, Klobuchar came at him again: “Our party better step back and think a lot if we’re going to put the person on top of our ticket that has not been able to win in a statewide race [he ran and lost for Indiana state treasurer] and then failed in a race for Democratic National Committee [he ran and lost to be chair in 2017].”

So why has Klobuchar been lagging in polls so far? For one thing, there are too many candidates in her centrist lane—not just Biden and Buttigieg, but also New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Colorado Senator Michael Bennett, plus folks like Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and others who’ve departed. Oh, then there’s Michael Bloomberg, who just jumped in, to nobody’s demand.

Klobuchar also stumbled out of the gate because of reports—by journalists with credibility, especially HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel—that she has abused her staff over the years. Some people responded by insisting Klobuchar would never have come in for that criticism if she were a man, which is a fair if debatable point, but the criticism mostly went away because the candidate seemed to go away—she regularly hovered around 1 percent in most polls. Now, with the departure of some rivals, Klobuchar is hovering between 3 and 5 percent in both Iowa and national polls, which seems poor, but outshines almost all of the 24 people who’ve been in the race. And now that she’s clearly won a debate, she could climb higher. So if there are more such staff-abuse stories out there, expect to hear them soon. That’s the way the media works.

If there aren’t, Klobuchar could jump ahead in Iowa, and soon. I’m not sure what her path is after that—she’s in single digits in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, the next early state contests—but we’ve never seen a race like this. So nobody can say she doesn’t have one.